Garland’s intense tutoring helps students, but educators worry as funding runs out

[Dallas Morning News] Garland’s intense tutoring helps students, but educators worry as funding runs out

Aislyn Swonger scrawls a math problem across a whiteboard — multiplying decimals — before turning to the group of four fourth graders sitting in front of her.

The Garland ISD students fill in square grids on their worksheets, slowly writing out their answers.

“I thought it would be way harder than it was supposed to be,” exclaimed Enrique Zamora, a dark-haired boy in glasses.

Down the hall, in what is usually the art room at Katherine Stephens Elementary School, Elvi Chavez-Cisneros sat hunched over a reading passage.

“What could be the most important point in the story that we could highlight?” Chavez-Cisneros asked the two girls being tutored.

Yaretzy Delgadillo, also in fourth grade, answered that “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is about plastic pollution in the ocean.

“Yes, I agree with you,” said Chavez-Cisneros, nodding and smiling.

The students are part of the newest tutoring initiatives the district launched recently at seven elementary schools.

The Garland ISD Afterschool Program, or GAP, provides an hour of additional academic support to about 210 students after the typical school day for four days a week in addition to enrichment activities, such as robotics club and playtime.

The program is among many that schools across Texas have cobbled together to meet two urgent needs: helping students recover academically from the pandemic and meeting a new law that requires tutoring for students who failed state exams.

In Garland, district leaders say that, despite initial bumps in the road, they are already seeing success with their afterschool program. But with funding in short supply, they wonder how to keep the program running.

Teacher Elvi Chavez-Cisneros (left) tutors Sarah Martinez-Valenciana and Yaretzy Delgadillo (right) at Katherine Stephens Elementary School in Garland on Monday, Dec. 12, 2022.

(Lola Gomez / Staff Photographer)

High-impact tutoring

A growing body of research shows that high-quality, consistent tutoring makes an impact.

Best practices include small tutor-to-student ratios — typically no more than three students per tutor — for at least 30 minutes multiple times a week, experts say.

“We know it works. We can see it,” said Kim Webb, coordinator of accelerated learning for Garland schools. She added, “Even if the test scores haven’t shown it yet, what we see is the confidence that the kids are gaining, the comfort level they have back in their schools.”

Since the early days of the pandemic, educators and lawmakers called on robust tutoring programs to help students who fell behind during COVID-19 disruptions.

Many schools used federal coronavirus relief dollars to beef up existing programs.

In 2021, the Legislature required schools to provide at least 30 hours of tutoring in each subject that a student failed or missed on state exams.

Launching tutoring programs can require a mind shift, said Sharla Horton-Williams, senior director of academic recovery for The Commit Partnership.

For years, schools have offered tutoring programs, but they could vary in quality and often were just for students to get homework help. Districts also haven’t always followed consistent practices or collected data, Horton-Williams added.

“Most of this tutoring work is mindset work. It’s such a big shift from the way districts have historically operated,” she said.

Along with the afterschool program, the district’s middle and high schools have tutoring built into the school day. Usually, it’s during advisory periods, so students can still work or participate in sports.

Teachers are already noticing a difference in their students after just one semester.

“So, how do we sustain it?” Webb asked.

Districts face implementation challenges

Research that shows intensive tutoring — sometimes considered one of the oldest forms of education — can be the most effective, but it’s often expensive and time-consuming.

Early tutoring efforts for pandemic recovery were immediately hampered by staff shortages and logistical issues.

Garland turned to retired educators, college students, paid community members and part-time volunteers in addition to staff and teachers.

Some tutors, such as Chavez-Cisneros, are highly qualified. She is a bilingual teacher at Stephens and earns an additional stipend to tutor after school.

Swonger, who normally works as a library aide, gets to work with students in a different environment as she helps them with lessons.

Stephens principal Lindsey Young notes that the paraprofessional already has a relationship with most students through the library. “But she doesn’t really get to hone in and really work with them one-on-one.”

Student Giselle Hoyle during a tutoring session at Katherine Stephens Elementary School in Garland on Monday, Dec. 12, 2022.

(Lola Gomez / Staff Photographer)

Some tutors need more comprehensive training first.

Dallas College pulls its students enrolled in a teacher training program to provide tutors to local schools. United to Learn and other groups have stepped in to ensure they are prepared.

Still, large districts such as Dallas need thousands of tutors each year. Though Garland — which is about one-third the size — is constantly receiving referrals from principals for part-time tutor positions, district leaders are still actively recruiting.

Last school year, the Texas Education Agency backed off full enforcement of the new state mandates. State officials didn’t strictly enforce compliance in the first year “as long as districts are making reasonable efforts to meet the requirements and there is no evidence of willful noncompliance.” Agency officials encouraged districts to be prepared for this school year.

Eventually, districts that aren’t meeting state requirements could face losing state funding. For students who don’t receive needed tutoring, the consequences could be more dire. They could remain behind and continue to struggle academically.

Horton-Williams does credit the law for spurring districts into action and creating a sense of urgency.

Commit works with Dallas, Garland and the charter network Uplift Education to support and study tutoring as part of a $10 million research effort announced earlier this fall. (Commit CEO Todd Williams is a supporter of the Education Lab through his family’s foundation.)

Researchers are analyzing 31 tutoring initiatives across the country in the hopes of finding solutions to the challenges schools face when putting tutoring programs in place.

Schools collect data about attendance, tutor types, the number of minutes that students are engaged, what material or curriculum is used and even how students, tutors and teachers feel about the experience.

Though it’s too early to tell how much of a difference many of these programs are making, some data from Commit and Uplift Education show that any amount of tutoring can have a positive impact on student achievement.

About 2,500 Uplift students who received just one to five hours of tutoring last school year saw some improvement on their state tests, the data shows.

Student Rylie Russ-Henderson during a tutoring session at Katherine Stephens Elementary School in Garland on Monday, Dec. 12, 2022.

(Lola Gomez / Staff Photographer)

Funding and sustainability concerns

Even as districts fill tutor positions for now — and with state inevitable enforcement on the horizon — many school leaders like Webb are already planning for the future.

Districts’ federal pandemic funds that covered much of their tutoring expansions must be used by September 2023 or 2024, when the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, aid packages expire.

Education advocates want more state support — and funding — sharing research-backed strategies with lawmakers ahead of the legislative session.

“Yes, we’ve got some ESSER money and there are grants, but there’s also the long-term,” Webb said.

She predicts that districts will continue to reconfigure school schedules or teacher responsibilities during the school day to meet with students who need it in smaller groups.

“We know this is what works, so what do we do as a district? How do we make it work when the extra funds are gone?”

The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.

The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, Garrett and Cecilia Boone, The Meadows Foundation, The Murrell Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University, Sydney Smith Hicks,Todd A. Williams Family Foundation and the University of Texas at Dallas. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.